National Football League

National Football League
National Football League
Current season or competition:
2011 NFL season
National Football League 2008.svg
Sport American Football
Founded August 20, 1920, in Canton, Ohio
Commissioner Roger Goodell
Inaugural season 1920
No. of teams 32
Country(ies) United States
Most recent champion(s) Green Bay Packers (13th title)
Most titles Green Bay Packers (13 titles)
TV partner(s) CBS
NFL Network
Official website

The National Football League (NFL) is the highest level of professional football in the United States. It was formed by eleven teams in 1920 as the American Professional Football Association, with the league changing its name to the National Football League in 1922. The league currently consists of thirty-two teams from the United States. The league is divided evenly into two conferences – the American Football Conference (AFC) and National Football Conference (NFC), and each conference has four divisions that have four teams each, for a total of 16 teams in each conference. The NFL is an unincorporated 501(c)(6) association,[1][2][3] a federal nonprofit designation,[4] comprising its 32 teams.[5][6]

The regular season is a seventeen-week schedule during which each team plays sixteen games and has one bye week. The season currently starts on the Thursday night in the first full week of September (the Thursday after Labor Day) and runs weekly to late December or early January. At the end of each regular season, six teams from each conference (at least one from each division) play in the NFL playoffs, a twelve-team single-elimination tournament that culminates with the championship game, known as the Super Bowl. This game is held at a pre-selected site which is usually a city that hosts an NFL team.

The NFL is the most attended domestic sports league in the world by average attendance per game, with 66,960 fans per game in 2010–11.[7] Although not as frequently as the other major professional sports leagues in the United States, the NFL still is not immune to labor disputes, such as the player's strikes of 1982 and 1987, and more recently a lockout in 2011, though the latest did not result in the cancellation of any regular-season games.



In 1920 representatives of several professional American football leagues and independent teams founded the American Professional Football Conference, soon renamed the National Football League. The first official championship game was held in 1933; prior to, there was no playoff system and instead the team that finished with the best regular season record was awarded the league title. By 1958, when that season's NFL championship game became known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played", the NFL was on its way to becoming one of the most popular sports leagues in the United States. In 1965, football supplanted baseball as the most popular televised sport in America.[8] The merger with the American Football League, agreed to in 1966 and completed in 1970, greatly expanded the league and created the Super Bowl, which has become the most-watched annual sporting event in the United States.

Season structure

Since 2002, the NFL season features the following schedule:

  • a 4-game exhibition season (or preseason) running from early August to early September;
  • a 16-game, 17-week regular season running from September to December or early January; and
  • a 12-team single-elimination playoff beginning in January, culminating in the Super Bowl in early February.

Traditionally, American high school football games are played on Friday nights, American college football games are played on Thursday nights and Saturdays, and most NFL games are played on Sunday. Because the NFL season is longer than the college football season, the NFL schedules Saturday games and Saturday playoff games outside the college football season. The ABC Television network added Monday Night Football in 1970, and Thursday night NFL games were added in the 1980s.

Exhibition season

Following mini-camps in the spring and officially recognized training camp in July–August, NFL teams typically play four exhibition games from early August through early September. Each team hosts two games of the four. The exhibition season begins with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, so those two teams play five exhibition games each. Historically, the American Bowl(s) were played prior to the NFL scheduling regular season games abroad and those teams faced this similar predicament.

The games are useful for new players who are not used to playing in front of very large crowds. Management often uses the games to evaluate newly signed players. Veteran starters will generally play only for about a quarter of each game to minimize the risk of injury. Several lawsuits have been brought by fans, against the policy of including exhibition games in season-ticket packages at regular season prices, but none have so far been very successful.

Regular season

This chart displays an application of the NFL scheduling formula. At the end of the 2008 season, the Browns (in green) finished in fourth place in the AFC North. Thus the Browns in 2009 had to play all the other AFC North teams (in blue) twice; all the AFC West teams (another division within its own conference) once; all the NFC North teams (a division in the other conference) once; and the Bills and the Jaguars, who also finished in fourth place in their respective AFC divisions during that previous season.

Following the preseason, each of the thirty-two teams embark on a seventeen-week, sixteen-game schedule, with the extra week consisting of a bye to allow teams a rest sometime in the middle of the season (and also to increase television coverage). The regular season currently begins the Thursday evening after Labor Day with a primetime "Kickoff Game" (NBC currently holds broadcast rights for that game). According to the current scheduling structure, the earliest the season could begin is September 4 (as it was in the 2008 season), while the latest would be September 10 (as it was in the 2009 season, due to September 1 falling on a Tuesday). The regular season ends no later than January 3, in any given year.

The league uses a scheduling formula to pre-determine which teams plays whom during a given season. Under the current formula since 2002, each of the thirty-two teams' respective 16-game schedule consists for the following:[9][10]

  • Each team plays the other three teams in their division twice: once at home, and once on the road (six games).
  • Each team plays the four teams from another division within its own conference once on a rotating three-year cycle: two at home, and two on the road (four games).
  • Each team plays the four teams from a division in the other conference once on a rotating four-year cycle: two at home, and two on the road (four games).
  • Each team plays once against the other teams in its conference that finished in the same place in their own divisions as themselves the previous season, not counting the division they were already scheduled to play: one at home, one on the road (two games).

Although this scheduling formula determines each of the thirty-two teams' respective opponents, the league usually does not release the final regular schedule with specific dates and times until the spring; the NFL needs several months to coordinate the entire season schedule so that, among other reasons, games are worked around various scheduling conflicts, and that it helps maximize TV ratings.[11]


The NFL Playoffs. Each of the four division winners is seeded 1–4 based on their W-L-T records. The two Wild Card teams (labeled Wild Card 1 and 2) are seeded fifth and sixth (with the better of the two having seed 5) regardless of their records compared to the four division winners.

The season concludes with a twelve-team tournament used to determine the teams to play in the Super Bowl. The tournament brackets are made up of six teams from each of the league's two conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC), following the end of the 16-game regular season:

  • The four division champions from each conference (the team in each division with the best regular season won-lost-tied record), which are seeded one through four based on their regular season won-lost-tied record (tie-breaker rules may apply).
  • Two wild card qualifiers from each conference (those non-division champions with the conference's best record, i.e. the best won-lost-tied percentages, with a series of tie-breaking rules in place in the event that there are teams with the same number of wins and losses[12]), which are seeded five and six.

In each conference, the No. 3 and No. 6 seeded teams, and the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, face each other during the first round of the playoffs, dubbed the Wild Card Playoffs (the league in recent years has also used the term Wild Card Weekend). The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds from each conference receive a bye in the first round, which entitles these teams to automatically advance to the second round, the Divisional Playoff games, to face the winning teams from the first round. In round two, the No. 1 seeded team always plays the lowest surviving seed in their conference. And in any given playoff game, whoever has the higher seed gets the home field advantage (i.e. the game is held at the higher seed's home field).

The two surviving teams from the Divisional Playoff games meet in Conference Championship games, with the winners of those contests going on to face one another in the Super Bowl in a game located at a neutral venue that is usually either indoors or in a warm-weather locale. The designated "home team" alternates year to year between the conferences. In odd-numbered Super Bowls, the NFC team is the designated "home team", with the AFC team serving as the home team for even-numbered games.

The NFL is the only one out of the four major professional sports leagues in the United States to use a single-elimination tournament in its playoffs; Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League all use a "best-of" format instead.

Pro Bowl

The Pro Bowl, the league's all-star game, has been traditionally held on the weekend after the Super Bowl. The game was played at various venues before being held at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii for 30 consecutive seasons from 1980 to 2009.

However, the 2010 Pro Bowl was played at Sun Life Stadium, the home stadium of the Miami Dolphins and host site of Super Bowl XLIV, on January 31, the first time ever that the Pro Bowl was played before the championship game. The game returned to Honolulu in 2011 and will again be played there in 2012, though the 2011 game was still played before the Super Bowl.


Though the NFL only plays in the late summer, fall, and early winter, the extended offseason often is an event in itself, with the draft, free agency signings, and the announcement of schedules keeping the NFL in the spotlight even during the spring, when virtually no on-field activity is taking place. A typical calendar of league events is as follows, with the dates listed being those for the 2010 NFL season:

  • February 22 – Pro Football Hall of Fame Game opponents announced.
  • February 24 – March 2—NFL Scouting Combine: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind.
  • February 25—Deadline for Clubs to designate Franchise and Transition players.
  • March 5—Veteran Free Agency signing period begins. Trading period begins.
  • March 21–24—NFL Annual Meeting: Dana Point, Calif. Usually accompanied by announcement of scheduling and opponents for first game and opening-weekend night games.
  • Early April: Teams begin voluntary workouts.
  • April 20: 2010 schedule announced.
  • April 22–24 – NFL Draft: New York City.
  • May 24–26—NFL Spring Meeting: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
  • June 27 – June 30—NFL Rookie Symposium, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
  • Mid-July (varies by team, fifteen days before first preseason game)-- Training camps open.
  • August 7 – Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Canton, Ohio, including Hall of Fame Game.
  • August 12–16—First full Preseason weekend.
  • August 31—Roster cutdown from 80 to maximum of 75 players.
  • September 4—Roster cutdown from 75 to maximum of 53 players.
  • September 9–13 – Kickoff 2010 Weekend (Week 1 of regular season)
  • October 31 – International Series game (Wembley Stadium, London).
  • November – Pro Bowl balloting and flexible scheduling for NBC Sunday Night Football begin.
  • November 25 – Thanksgiving games.
  • January 2, 2011—End of regular season.
  • January 8, 2011 – Playoffs begin.
  • January 23 – AFC Championship Game and NFC Championship Game.
  • January 30 – Pro Bowl.
  • February 6 – Super Bowl.


Current NFL teams

The NFL consists of thirty-two clubs. Each club is allowed a maximum of fifty-three players on their roster, but may only dress forty-five to play each week during the regular season. Reflecting the population distribution of the United States as a whole, most teams are in the eastern half of the country; seventeen teams are in the Eastern Time Zone and nine others in the Central Time Zone.

Most major metropolitan areas in the United States have an NFL franchise, although Los Angeles, the second-largest metropolitan area in the country, has not hosted an NFL team since 1994.

The Rams and the Raiders called the Los Angeles area home from 1946–1994 and 1982–1994 respectively. On August 9, 2011, the LA City Council approved plans to build Farmers Field which will be home to an NFL team. It is unknown which team will move to the venue.[13]

Unlike Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, the league has no full-time teams in Canada, although the Buffalo Bills play one game per year in Toronto. Also, there is talk of possibly bringing the NFL to Toronto, the largest city in Canada.

The Dallas Cowboys are the highest valued American football franchise, valued at approximately $1.6 billion[14] and one of the most valuable franchises in all of professional sports worldwide, currently second[15] behind English soccer club Manchester United,[14] which has an approximate value of $1.8 billion at current exchange rates.[16] Since the 2002 season, the teams have been aligned as follows:

Chart notes
An asterisk (*) denotes a franchise move. See the respective team articles for more information.
"Owner" refers to primary or majority owner; i.e. the owner that represents the team in league owners' meetings. See List of NFL franchise owners for more details.
  1. The Buffalo Bills play one regular game each year and one preseason game every two years from 2008–2012 at Rogers Centre in Toronto.
  2. As the result of a relocation controversy in 1996, the league officially suspended operations of the Cleveland Browns while its players and personnel moved to Baltimore to become a new franchise called the Baltimore Ravens. As per an agreement with the two cities, the Ravens are officially regarded as a new 1996 team while the league's official history and records views the Browns as one continuous franchise that began in 1946, suspended operations from 19961998, and resumed play in 1999 with new players.
  3. Although the club was originally established in 1919 as the company team of the A. E. Staley food starch company, the Chicago Bears official team and league records instead cite George Halas as the founder after he took over control in 1920.[18]

Former NFL teams

In its earliest years, the NFL was a very unstable and somewhat informal organization. Many teams entered and left the league annually. However, since the acquisition of the All-America Football Conference in 1950, the NFL has shown remarkable stability. The last NFL team to fold was the Dallas Texans in 1952; its remnants were salvaged to form the expansion Baltimore Colts.



Annually, the Super Bowl often ranks as the most watched show of the year in the United States and second most watched sporting event worldwide behind the UEFA Champions League final. Four of Nielsen Media Research's top ten programs are Super Bowls.[19] Networks have purchased a share of the broadcasting rights to the NFL as a means of raising the entire network's profile.[20] The Super Bowl is so popular annually that many companies debut elaborate commercials during the game.

The television rights to the NFL are the most lucrative and expensive sports broadcasting commodity in the United States. Under the current television contracts, which began during the 2006 season, regular season games are broadcast on five networks: CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, and the NFL Network. Regionally shown games are broadcast on Sundays on CBS and Fox, carrying the AFC and NFC teams respectively (the traveling team deciding the broadcast station in the event of inter-Conference games, presumably so that each network can show games from all the stadiums[citation needed]). These games generally air at 1:00 pm ET and 4:05 pm or 4:15 pm ET. (Due to differences between Eastern and local time, games played in the Pacific and Mountain time zones are never played in the 1:00 pm ET time slot.) Nationally televised games include Sunday night games (shown on NBC), Monday night games (shown on ESPN), the Thursday night NFL Kickoff Game (shown on NBC), the annual Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day games (CBS and Fox), and beginning in 2006, all Thursday and Saturday games on the NFL Network, a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Football League.[21][22]

Additionally, satellite broadcast company DirecTV offers NFL Sunday Ticket, a subscription based package, that allows most Sunday daytime regional games to be watched.[23][24] This package is exclusive to DirecTV in the USA; for subscribers to Dish Network Verizon FiOS and Comcast, the NFL instead offers "RedZone," a less expensive single channel that launched in 2009 and airs "the touchdowns and most important moments during all the Sunday afternoon games."[25] In Canada, NFL Sunday Ticket is available on a per-provider distribution deal on both cable and satellite.

The NFL also produces programming for various networks, mainly highlight shows like Inside the NFL for Showtime and other historical games through its renowned NFL Films division that generally air on ESPN and NFL Network. Other NFL-produced programs include Hard Knocks, an HBO series detailing training camp for certain teams; plus the animated children's show RushZone: Guardians of the Core airing on Viacom's Nicktoons channel.


Each NFL team has its own radio network and employs its announcers. Nationally, the NFL is heard on the Westwood One Radio Network, Sports USA Radio Network, the Dial Global-Compass Media Sports Network and in Spanish on Univision Radio. Westwood One carries Sunday and Monday Night Football, all Thursday games, two Sunday afternoon contests each week, the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, and all post-season games, including the Pro Bowl. Sports USA Radio and Dial Global-Compass each broadcast two Sunday afternoon games every Sunday during the regular season, by agreement with individual teams.[21] Univision carries Monday Night games, select games from the New York metro area, and all playoff games.

The NFL also has a contract with Sirius Satellite Radio, which provides news, analysis, commentary and game coverage for all games, as well as comprehensive coverage of the draft and off-season on its own channel, Sirius NFL Radio.[26]

Internet radio broadcasts of all NFL games are managed through FieldPass, a subscription service. Radio stations are, by rule, prohibited from streaming the games for free from their Web sites; however, there are numerous stations that break this rule. All 32 teams, plus Westwood One and Univision, currently broadcast through FieldPass as of 2009; Dial Global-Compass and Sports USA do not.

Internet/new media

In October 2006 the NFL announced the league would fully operate, including the development of the technology, infrastructure and editorial content. Launching its first major redesign since 1999 in August 2007, the site had been previously produced and hosted since 2001 by CBS SportsLine. It is estimated that the contract cost CBS $120 million over a five year period. Prior to CBS, produced and hosted the NFL site.[27]

Brian Rolapp, senior vice president of NFL digital media and media strategy: “In a rapidly changing digital landscape, bringing in-house provides us greater control of our valuable content and enables us to strategically build the site as a media asset. Fans can look forward to an even more entertaining, interactive and informative site built upon the expertise of the NFL and its other in-house media outlets such as NFL Network and NFL Films.”

Univision Online, Inc., the interactive subsidiary of Univision Communications Inc., and the NFL announced in January 2008 that they will jointly manage and operate powered by, the official U.S. Spanish-language website of the NFL. is the only Spanish-language website in the United States to feature NFL video game highlights. In addition, the website includes live radio broadcasts, up-to-date stats, Hispanic player diaries, Fantasy Football and an insider’s view of all 32 teams.[28]

Announced in March 2009, received its first-ever Sports Emmy nominations, which earned recognition for its LIVE coverage of NFL Network’s Thursday and Saturday Night Football (Outstanding new approaches, coverage) and its Anatomy of a Play, a short-form 360-degree analysis of key plays of the week (Outstanding new approaches, general interest).[29]

Beginning September 2008, the NFL announced that it would simulcast all NBC Sunday Night Football games on, located at In 2007, they had provided an Emmy-nominated "complementary live broadcast" which included a partial simulcast of the NFL Network's Run to the Playoffs eight game package along with expanded NFL Network analysis.

The NFL offers a pay service for people outside the United States to watch all regular season and playoff games, except for the Super Bowl, live online. This service is not available for fans within the United States or Mexico.[30] Instead, the service is available after games are played and offers full DVR functionality with the ability to watch up to four previously recorded games at once.

Player contracts and compensation

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) has historically served as the labor union for NFL players. Among its duties is negotiating collective bargaining agreements (CBA) with league owners, which governs the negotiation of individual player contracts for all of the league's players. The NFLPA was established in 1956, and has decertified at least twice in its history during labor disputes: the 1987 strike and the 2011 lockout.

The most recent CBA was in place since 1993, and was amended in 1998 and again in 2006. But in 2008, the owners exercised their right to opt out of the agreement two years early.[31][32] This has eventually led to a lockout in 2011, the NFL's first work stoppage since 1987, which is longer than Major League Baseball (1994 and beginning of 1995 seasons), the NBA (1998–99 season) or the NHL (2004–05 season canceled).

Under that recently expired CBA, players were tiered into three different levels with regards to their rights to negotiate for contracts:

  • Players who have been drafted (see below), and have not yet played in their first year, may only negotiate with the team that drafted them.[31] If terms cannot be agreed upon, the players' only recourse is to refuse to play ("hold out") until terms can be reached. Players often use the threat of holding out as a means to force the hands of the teams that drafted them. For example, John Elway was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1983 but refused to play for them. He had a fallback option of baseball, as he had played in the New York Yankees organization for two summers while at Stanford. The Colts traded his rights to the Denver Broncos and Elway agreed to play.[33] Bo Jackson sat out an entire year in 1986, choosing to play baseball in the Kansas City Royals organization rather than play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team that had drafted him. He reentered the draft the following year, and was drafted and subsequently signed with the Los Angeles Raiders.[34]
  • Players that have played three full seasons in the league, and whose contract has expired are considered "Restricted Free Agents" (see below). They have limited rights to negotiate with any club.[31]
  • Players that have played four or more full seasons in the league, and whose contract has expired, are considered "Unrestricted Free Agents"(see below) and have unlimited rights to negotiate with any club. Teams may name a single player in any given year as a "Franchise Player" (see below), which eliminates much of that player's negotiation rights. This is a limited right of the team, however, and affects only a small handful of players each year.[31]

In the 2010 season, the CBA was not extended, thus changing the rules so that players don't become "Unrestricted Free Agents" until they have played at least six full seasons in the league. They will be "Restricted Free Agents" if they have three–five full seasons in the league.

Among the items covered in the CBA are:

  • The league minimum salary
  • The salary cap
  • The annual collegiate draft
  • Rules regarding "free agency"
  • Waiver rules


A player's salary, as defined by the CBA, includes any "compensation in money, property, investments, loans or anything else of value to which an NFL player may be awarded" excluding such benefits as insurance and pension. A salary can include an annual pay and a one-time "signing bonus" which is paid in full when the player signs his contract. For the purposes of the salary cap (see below), the signing bonus is prorated over the life of the contract rather than to the year in which the signing bonus is paid.[35]

Player contracts are not guaranteed; teams are only required to pay on the contract as long as the player remains a member of the team. If the player is cut, or quits, for any reason, the balance of the contract is voided and the player receives no further compensation.[36]

Among other things, the CBA establishes a minimum salary for its players,[35] which is stepped-up as a player's years of experience increase. Players and their agents may negotiate with clubs for higher salaries, and frequently do.

Salary cap

The salary cap is defined as the maximum amount that a team may spend on player compensation (see above) in a given season, for all of its players combined. Unlike other leagues, for example the NBA (which permits certain exemptions) or Major League Baseball (which has a "soft cap" enforced by "luxury taxes"), the NFL has a "hard cap": an amount no team under any circumstances may exceed. The NFL also has a so-called "hard floor", a minimum payroll that each team is required to pay regardless of the circumstances.

The NFL salary cap is calculated by the current CBA to be 59.5% of the total projected league revenue for the upcoming year. This number, divided by the number of teams, determines an individual team's maximum salary cap. For 2008, this was approximately $116 million per team.[37] For 2009, it increased to $127 million.[38] As a result of the NFL owners opting out of the CBA two years early, the 2010 season had no salary cap or floor.[32]

Teams and players often find creative ways to fit salaries under the salary cap. Early in the salary cap era, "signing bonuses" were used to give players a large chunk of money up front, and thus not count in the salary for the bulk of the contract. This led to a rule whereby all signing bonus are pro-rated equally for each year of the contract. Thus if a player receives a $10 million signing bonus for a five-year contract, $2 million per year would count against the salary cap for the life of the contract, even though the full $10 million was paid up front during the first year of the contract.[35]

Player contracts tend to be "back-loaded". This means that the contract is not divided equally among the time period it covers. Instead, the player earns progressively more and more each year. For instance, a player signing a four-year deal worth $10 million may get paid $1 million the first year, $2 million the second year, $3 million the third year, and $4 million the fourth year. If a team cuts this player after the first year, the final three years do not count against the cap. Any signing bonus, however, ceases to be pro-rated, and the entire balance of the bonus counts against the cap in the upcoming season.[35]

NFL Draft

Each April, each NFL franchise seeks to add new players to its roster through a collegiate draft known as "the NFL Annual Player Selection Meeting", which is more commonly known as the NFL Draft.

Teams are ranked in inverse order based on the previous season's record, with the team having the worst record picking first, and the second-worst picking second, and so on. Regardless of regular season records, the last two picks of each round go to the two teams in the Super Bowl immediately preceding the draft, with the Super Bowl champion picking last.

The draft proceeds for seven rounds. In the past, Rounds 1–2 were run on Saturday of draft weekend, rounds 3–7 were run on Sunday.

During 2010 the league experimented with a new system. Round 1 was run on Thursday night of the draft weekend. Rounds 2 and 3 were run on the Friday night of the draft weekend. Rounds 4 through 7 were run on Saturday. The impact of this change—according to commentators at ESPN and Sports Illustrated—was that teams gained more time to make trades for draft picks in the early rounds and that process enhanced the value of the first picks in Rounds 2 and 4. and

Teams are given 10 minutes in the first round of the draft, 7 in the second round and 5 in all other rounds.[39] If the pick is not made in the allotted time, subsequent teams in the draft may draft before them. This happened in 2003 to the Minnesota Vikings.[40]

Teams have the option of trading away their picks to other teams for different picks, players, cash, or a combination thereof. While player-for-player trades are rare during the rest of the year (especially in comparison to the other major league sports), trades are far more common on draft day. In 1989, the Dallas Cowboys traded running back Herschel Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for five veteran players and six draft picks over 3 years. The Cowboys would use these picks to leverage trades for additional draft picks and veteran players. As a direct result of this trade, they would draft many of the stars who would help them win three Super Bowls in the 1990s, including Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, and Darren Woodson.[41]

The first pick in the draft is often taken to be the best overall player in the rookie class. This may or may not be true, since teams often select players based more on the teams' needs than on the players' overall skills. Plus, comparing players at different positions is difficult to do. Still, it is considered a great honor to be a first-round pick, and a greater honor to be the first overall pick. The last pick in the draft is known as Mr. Irrelevant, and is the subject of a dinner in his (dubious) honor in Newport Beach, California.

Drafted players may only negotiate with the team that drafted them (or to another team if their rights were traded away). The drafting team has one year to sign the player. If they do not do so, the player may reenter the draft and can be drafted by another team. Bo Jackson famously sat out a season in this way.[34]

Free agency


As defined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), a free agent is any player who is not under contract to any team and thus has fully free rights to negotiate with any other team for new contract terms.[31][42] Free agents are classified into two categories: restricted and unrestricted. Furthermore, a team may "tag" a player as a franchise or transition, which places additional restrictions on that player's ability to negotiate. However, the ability to "tag" is quite limited, and only affects a handful of players each year.

Free agency in the NFL began with a limited free agency system known as "Plan B Free Agency", which was in effect between the 1989 and 1992 seasons. Beginning with the 1993 season, "Plan A Free Agency" went into effect.

Restricted free agent

A player who has 3 years of experience is eligible for restricted free agency, whereby his current team has the chance to retain rights to this player by matching the highest offer any other NFL franchise might make to that player. The club can either block a signing or, in essence, force a trade by offering a salary over a certain threshold. In 2006, these thresholds were as follows:

  • If a club tenders an offer of $685,000 per year for a three year veteran, and $725,000 for a four year veteran, the player's current team has "right of first refusal" over the contract at those terms, and may sign the player at those terms.
  • If a club tenders an offer of $712,000 or 110% (whichever is greater) of the previous year's salary, then the current club has both "right of first refusal" and rights to a draft pick from the same round (or better) from the signing club. Essentially, this means that the new club must forfeit the draft pick to the old club if they wish to sign the player under these terms.
  • If a club tenders an offer of $1.552 million or 110% (whichever is greater) of the previous year's salary, then the current club has both "right of first refusal"; and rights to the first round draft pick from the signing club.[42]

Unrestricted free agent

A player who has four or more years of experience is eligible for unrestricted free agency, whereby his current team has no guaranteed right to match outside offers to that player. This means that players in this category have unlimited rights to negotiate any terms with any team.[42]

Free agency changes in 2010

In 2010, the CBA was not extended, thus the rules changed so that players don't become "Unrestricted Free Agents" until they have at least six years of experience. They will be "Restricted Free Agents" if they have three–five years of experience. There will also be limitations imposed on which clubs are allowed to sign free agents. This is part of a set of rule changes written into the CBA designed to encourage the owners and the NFLPA to negotiate a new CBA: the players lose some free agency rights, and the owners lose the salary cap.[31]

Franchise tag

The franchise tag is a designation given to a player by a franchise that guarantees that player a contract the average of the five highest-paid players of that same position in the entire league, or 120% of the player's previous year's salary (whichever is greater) in return for retaining rights to that player for one year. An NFL franchise may only designate one player a year as having the franchise tag, and may designate the same player for consecutive years. This has caused some tension between some NFL franchise designees and their respective teams due to the fact that a player designated as a franchise player precludes that player from pursuing large signing bonuses that are common in unrestricted free agency, and also prevents a player from leaving the team, especially when the reasons for leaving are not necessarily financial. A team may, at their discretion, allow the franchise player to negotiate with other clubs, but if he signs with another club, the first club is entitled to two first round draft picks in compensation.[42]

Banned substances policy

The NFL banned substances policy has been acclaimed by some[43] and criticized by others,[44] but the policy is the longest running in American professional sports, beginning in 1987.[43] The current policy of the NFL suspends players without pay who test positive for banned substances as it has since 1989: four games for the first offense (a quarter of the regular season), eight games for a second offense (half of the regular season), and 12 months for a third offense.[45] The suspended games may be either regular season games or playoff games.[45]

While recently MLB and the NHL decided to permanently ban athletes for a third offense, they have long been resistant to such measures, and random testing is in its infancy.[46][47]

Since the NFL started random, year-round tests and suspending players for banned substances, many more players have been found to be in violation of the policy. By April 2005, 111 NFL players had tested positive for banned substances, and of those 111, the NFL suspended 54.[44]

A new rule is in the works due to Shawne Merriman. Starting the 2007 season, the new rule would prohibit any player testing positive for banned substances from being able to play in the Pro Bowl that year.[48]

Video games

There have been several American football video games based on NFL teams created for various consoles over the years, from 10-Yard Fight and the Tecmo Bowl series for the NES to the more well known Madden series that have been released annually since 1988. The Madden series is named after former coach and American football commentator John Madden. Prior to the 2005–2006 football season, other NFL games were produced by competing video game publishers, such as 2K Games and Midway Games. However, in December 2004, Electronic Arts signed a five-year exclusive agreement with the NFL, meaning only Electronic Arts will be permitted to publish games featuring NFL team and player names. This prompted video game developer Midway Games to release a game in 2005 called Blitz: The League, with fictitious teams and players. In February 2008, EA Sports renewed their exclusivity agreement with the league through Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.[49] A free flash based online game called Quick Hit Football was released in 2009 and was granted an official NFL license in 2010.


Commissioners and presidents

  1. Temporary Secretary Ralph Hay (1920)
  2. President Jim Thorpe (September 17, 1920 – April 30, 1921)[50]
  3. President Joseph Carr (April 30, 1921 – May 20, 1939)
  4. President Carl Storck (May 25, 1939 – April 5, 1941)
  5. Commissioner Elmer Layden (March 1, 1941 – January 11, 1946)
  6. Commissioner Bert Bell (January 11, 1946 – October 11, 1959)
  7. Interim President Austin Gunsel (October 14, 1959 – January 26, 1960, following death of Bell)
  8. Commissioner Alvin "Pete" Rozelle (January 26, 1960 – November 5, 1989)
  9. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue (November 5, 1989 – September 1, 2006)
  10. Commissioner Roger Goodell (September 1, 2006–present)

Main league offices

Franchise owners

Unlike many professional leagues, the NFL forbids corporate owners. Ownership groups must contain twenty-four or fewer individuals, and at least one partner must hold a thirty percent or greater share of the team. The Green Bay Packers are an exemption to the current policy, since they have been a publicly owned stock corporation since before the rule was in place.[51]

In recent years, NFL owners and the NFL itself have become politically active, donating millions of dollars to political candidates.[52]

Uniform numbers

In the NFL, players wear uniform numbers based on the position they play. The current system was instituted into the league on April 5, 1973,[53] as a means for fans and officials (referees, linesmen) to more easily identify players on the field by their position. Players who were already in the league at that date were grandfathered and did not have to change their uniform numbers if they did not conform. Since that date, players are invariably assigned numbers within the following ranges, based on their primary position:

  • Quarterbacks, Placekickers and Punters: 1–19
  • Wide Receivers: 10–19 and 80–89
  • Running Backs and Defensive Backs: 20–49
  • Offensive Linemen: 50–79
  • Linebackers: 50–59 and 90–99, or 40–49 if all are taken
  • Defensive Linemen: 50–79 and 90–99
  • Tight Ends: 80–89, or 40–49

Prior to 2004, wide receivers were allowed to wear only numbers 80–89.[54] The NFL changed the rule that year to allow wide receivers to wear numbers 10–19 to allow for the increased number of players at wide receiver and tight end coming into the league. Linebackers are allowed to wear numbers between 40–49 when all of the numbers 50–59 and 90–99 are taken. Prior to that, players were allowed to wear non-standard numbers only if their team had run out of numbers within the prescribed number range. Keyshawn Johnson began wearing number 19 in 1996 because the New York Jets had run out of numbers in the 80s. Oakland Raider offensive center Jim Otto wore a 00 jersey during most of his career with the AFL team and kept the number after the leagues merged. Devin Hester is a wide receiver/return specialist for the Chicago Bears but wears number 23 because he was drafted as a cornerback but transferred to wide receiver after his rookie year.

Occasionally, players will petition the NFL to allow them to wear a number that is not in line with the numbering system. Brad Van Pelt, a linebacker who entered the NFL in 1973 with the New York Giants, wore number 10 during his eleven seasons with the club, despite not being covered by the grandfather clause. In 2006, New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush petitioned the NFL to let him keep the number 5 which he used at USC. His request was later denied.[55] Former Seattle Seahawks standout Brian Bosworth attempted such a petition in 1987 (to wear his collegiate number of 44 at the linebacker position which he used at the University of Oklahoma), also without success. The Seahawks attempted to get around the rule by listing Bosworth as a safety, but after he wore number 44 for a game against the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL ruled Bosworth would have to switch back to his original number, 55.

To aid the officials in spotting certain penalties, such as "illegal formation" or "ineligible receiver", usually only offensive players with numbers 1–49 and 80–89 are allowed to play at the end or back positions or handle the ball in normal game situations. However, a player wearing 50–79 or 90–99 may play in an "eligible" position simply by reporting to the referee that he will be doing so. The NFL numbering system is based on a player's primary position. Any player wearing any number may play at any position on the field at any time, subject to the reporting rules described above. It is not uncommon for running backs to line up at wide receiver on certain plays, or even to have a large offensive or defensive lineman play at fullback or tight end in short yardage situations. Also, in preseason games, when teams have expanded rosters, players may wear numbers that are outside of the above rules. When the final 53-player roster is established, they are reissued numbers within the above guidelines.


Discontinued awards


26 of the 32 NFL teams are supported by their own professional cheerleading squads. These squads attend games and promote the team. The teams without cheerleading squads are the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions.

See also

Regular seasons



Related football leagues



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  6. ^ For example, "The Detroit Lions is a 'Professional' Football team owned by William Clay Ford, Sr., with a membership in the National Football League (NFL), which is an unincorporated association governed by its own constitution and bylaws." Detroit Lions v. National Football League, 41 < MI.4th 624, 629 (2007).
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  29. ^ "NFL Network, NFL Films and garner Emmy nominations,". Retrieved March 13, 2008. 
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  • 2006 NFL Record and Fact Book. Time Inc. Home Entertainment. ISBN 1-933405-32-5. 
  • Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League. Harper Collins. ISBN 1-933405-32-5. 
  • MacCambridge, Michael (2004–2005), America's Game. New York:Anchor Books ISBN ISBN 978-0-307-48143-6

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